I would like to share a story about an encounter I had with a wild pony who charged at me, and his tribe. There were plenty of unexpected lessons experienced here, and so would like to share it. I tried to include how I worked with my nervous system, as I am a SE practitioner, to try to demonstrate what that actually means in a challenging circumstance like this.
My partner, Helena and I carried glass jugs in our hands, and bottles in a backpack, as we walked up a hill on Dartmoor to collect spring water. I was scheduled to give a talk that evening on the intersection of wildness and the body, and so I should have expected something to challenge me on the subject. Though, we were surprised to find a herd of about 25 wild ponies as we approached the spring. For me, in these moments, there is both a sense of fascination, and nervous anticipation, as I am keenly aware that I am going to need to use acute perceptual skills to navigate an otherwise clumsy situation. Here, I needed to humble my pride a bit, as I noticed I had confidence after encountering several other packs of large animals this past year.
As we got close to the herd, I started with a basic greeting, using simple sounds, sung like a harmony. I do this, because it allows me to easily put feelings into the tones, so I am transparent and give them a chance to sense what we may be “bringing.” In this case, I tried to express respect, warmth, and also the necessary confidence, as it is easy to feel intimidated in confronting such large animals. As often happens, the ponies were entranced for the moments that we made simple sounds, but when we stopped, there was that pregnant moment of suspension, where anything feels like it could happen. Indeed, at once the alpha male identified himself with vigor. He made an abrupt and fierce jab at a nearby pony, and then charged downhill towards me. With this fierce presence charging towards me, I knew that I couldn’t afford to be sloppy in my response. This may sound terrifying, but in actuality, when running isn’t an option, a centeredness often emerges to hold one’s ground. Nonetheless, my nervous system quickly became aroused, so I worked to stay centered and embodied. In other words, I was up against the wall, and could only trust myself.
As this horse got a couple of meters away, he stopped abruptly. Fortunately, I am aware that nervous systems are usually in instant communication when confronted with each other, and so I worked with the fear in my body with the knowledge that it would help him also be more at ease. As I did this, some prayer-like thoughts of kindness and goodwill towards the horse began to come from my heart in relation to him. This process lasted for a few minutes…activation…ease…activation…more connection…less activation…ease of heart. With this, he felt comfortable being close to me, and sniffed me with some affection.
As he was now sufficiently settled, Helena and I were able to walk past him towards the spring. We filled up our various bottles and jugs as the many ponies were scattered around us. The alpha was nearby, but he felt like he was tranquilized and enjoying it. We were able to enjoy each horse’s unique qualities, and take them in as we filled up.
When we were down to the last two jugs, the alpha horse snapped out of his tranquilized state, and began to get a bit pushy. At first, he was playfully pushing up against us to get close, but this turned into something that seemed aggressive, as he was bullying us. I noticed that my system was a bit frozen, which classically further invites the bully in someone to come out. (Unfortunately, this is a very traumatic dynamic in playgrounds that could be greatly prevented with some ANS education) He began to push over our water jugs, and us away from the spring. I felt my freeze response amplify, and as it did, the more he turned into a bully.
I checked in with myself, to find an appropriate response, and discovered that I wanted to approach him one on one. I told Helena to give me a few moments alone with him, as if man-to-man, and she was happy as she wanted to begin carrying the water down the hill anyway. When she left, I noticed that underneath my freeze response was a boundary restoring mild-rage.
(Note, I will write as if the horses and I were speaking in coherent words, but in actuality it is a combination of feelings, words, and images that coalesce into something that feels like coherent conversation. For the purpose of this article, that is easiest expressed in words)
I began to speak to the alpha strongly, saying something like. “What kind of shit is this? We come with respect and friendliness, taking the time to connect with you and you pull this bullying stuff? You’re supposed to be a leader, not some bullish punk! What kind of example are you setting for the younger ones? (As I mentioned the younger ones, he looked towards the young ones with shock and shame) It is your responsibility to wield power with elegance, not like this!” As I said this, I was feeling my heart untangle from the freeze response. At first, he was relieved to have me coming out of the freeze, then he was surprised, then a cloud of shame hovered over him.
He retreated to hang his head under a nearby tree, and I was able to finish filling up the water. I noticed Helena sitting serenely below. Seeing her, I felt silly to get so involved with what at first seemed promising, and then such a childish drama. Yet, as I approached Helena, I couldn’t help but feel mixed feelings for leaving the alpha in such a state. A dominant female came charging towards me as I walked down, and I didn’t feel anything to arose my guard, but felt warmth from her. She stopped nearby, and I approached her. She said something like, “Thank you for confronting him, I know, he can be very difficult. He has also held a lot for us, and endured much for our herd.” I felt much connection with her, and after sharing this, she trotted off.
I stood with Helena, a bit confused of whether this encounter with the dominant female signified some response was necessary to work with the alpha male again. I shared my confusion with Helena, and thanks to her receptive ear, I was able to determine that I wanted to go back up there and see what wanted to happen next. After all, he looked like a completely different horse…he looked shocked, small, and in despair. Helena pointed out that I was probably the only one to actually ever stand up to him in this way during his reign as leader.
So I walked up that hill, without any idea what would happen next. I felt a bit shy, a bit foolish, like I had been disrespectful to that part of him that has been of great service to the herd. As I got halfway up the hill, all of us became silent without knowing why. We quickly saw the source of our alert, it was a woman riding a horse, as if from a different world. The movements seemed military like, displaying how well trained the both of them were. Somehow, this helped me realize how connected to this wild herd I actually was. All of us were operating with attunement to the land, and to what may be considered the subtle aspects of communication. In other words, this horse and woman helped break the ice, and I could also feel the alpha lighten up a bit too.
As I approached him, I made sure it was with extra care, because I knew that all the “work” we do together, trickles out to the rest of the herd. I began to say something like, “I’m sorry great being for my sharpness with you and calling you out with such shocking force. I see all that you’ve sacrificed for your tribe, and wish to honor that.” As I stood with him, three horses formed a wall in front of us, so we could connect in private. As I “spoke” to him in this way, I was able to hold him in my arms, and he leaned into me with watery eyes. My eyes were watery too. Both of our hearts softened, and I felt him fill himself back up out from that shame/sorrow place.
We stayed like this for as long was necessary, and then I bid him farewell with a lot of warmth and brotherhood. As I walked back down the hill, I could also sense something noble in me. Helena shared how she couldn’t see what was happening due to the horse shield, but with her expert eye, she enjoyed watching how the other horses constellated in their various feelings and positions throughout the process. Before leaving, a couple of horses came close with a warm friendliness. We walked off feeling fulfilled and touched in a humbly beautiful kind of way.